Every week, Mamadou Diagouraga comes to the Muslim section of a cemetery near Paris to watch over the grave of his father, one of the many French Muslims who have died of COVID-19. writes Caroline Pailliez.
Diagouraga looks up from his father’s property to the freshly dug graves next to it. “My father was the first in this series and it will be full in a year,” he said. “It’s incredible.”
Although France has the largest Muslim population in the European Union, it does not know how badly this group has been hit: French law prohibits the collection of data based on ethnicity or religious affiliation.
But evidence compiled by Reuters – including statistical data that indirectly captures the impact and statements made by community leaders – suggests that the COVID death rate among French Muslims is much higher than that of the general population.
According to a study based on official data, deaths in 2020 among French residents born in mainly Muslim North Africa were twice as high as among those born in France.
The reason for this, say community leaders and researchers, is that Muslims tend to have below average socio-economic status.
They are more likely to have jobs like bus drivers or cashiers, which bring them closer to the public, and live in cramped multigenerational households.
“They were … the first to pay a heavy price,” said M’Hammed Henniche, chairman of the Association of Muslim Associations in Seine-Saint-Denis, a region near Paris with many immigrants.
The unequal effects of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities, often for similar reasons, have been documented in other countries, including the United States.
But in France, the pandemic is highlighting the inequalities that are helping to fuel tension between French Muslims and their neighbors – and which are set to become a battleground in next year’s presidential elections.
According to polls, President Emmanuel Macron’s main opponent will be the right-wing extremist politician Marine Le Pen, who advocates Islam, terrorism, immigration and crime.
When asked about the impact of COVID-19 on France’s Muslims, a government official said, “We have no data tied to people’s religion.”
While official data remains silent on the impact of COVID-19 on Muslims, it becomes evident in one place in the cemeteries of France.
People buried according to Muslim religious rites are usually placed in specially designated sections of the cemetery, where the graves are oriented so that the dead faces Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.
The cemetery in Valenton, where Diagouraga’s father Boubou was buried, is in the Val-de-Marne region outside Paris.
According to Reuters compiled from all 14 cemeteries in Val-de-Marne, there were 1,411 Muslim burials in 2020, up from 626 the year before the pandemic. This is an increase of 125% compared to a 34% increase for all denominations in the region.
The increased mortality from COVID only partially explains the rise in Muslim burials.
Pandemic border restrictions prevented many families from sending deceased relatives back to their country of origin for funeral. There are no official data, but undertakers said around three-quarters of French Muslims were buried abroad from COVID.
Undertakers, imams and nongovernmental groups involved in the funeral of Muslims said there wasn’t enough land to meet demand at the beginning of the pandemic, forcing many families to desperately shout to find a place to bury their relatives .
On the morning of May 17 this year, Samad Akrach arrived at a morgue in Paris to pick up the body of Abdulahi Cabi Abukar, a Somali who died of COVID-19 in March 2020 without a family being found.
Akrach, president of the Tahara charity, which offers Muslim burials for the destitute, performed the ritual of washing the body and applying musk, lavender, rose petals and henna. Then, in the presence of 38 volunteers invited by Akrach’s group, the Somali was buried according to Muslim ritual in the Courneuve cemetery on the outskirts of Paris.
Akrach’s group performed 764 burials in 2020, up from 382 in 2019, he said. About half had died from Covid-19. “The Muslim community is tremendously affected at this time,” he said.
Statisticians also use data on foreign-born residents to assess the impact COVID has on ethnic minorities. This shows that the number of deaths among French born outside of France increased by 17% in 2020, compared with 8% for residents born in France.
Seine-Saint-Denis, the region of mainland France with the highest number of people not born in France, saw excess mortality increase by 21.8% from 2019 to 2020, more than double that, official statistics show much like for France as a whole.
The death toll among French residents born in Muslim-majority North Africa was 2.6 times higher and among those from sub-Saharan Africa 4.5 times higher than those born in France.
“We can conclude that … Muslim immigrants have been hit much harder by the COVID epidemic,” said Michel Guillot, research director at the state-funded French Institute for Demographic Studies.
The high mortality rate is particularly noticeable in Seine-Saint-Denis because in normal times, with its above-average younger population, it has a lower death rate than France as a whole.
In terms of socio-economic indicators, however, the region does below average. Twenty percent of homes are overcrowded, compared to 4.9% across the country. The average hourly wage is EUR 13.93, which is just under EUR 1.5 below the nationwide figure.
Henniche, head of the Association of Muslim Associations in the region, said he first felt the effects of COVID-19 on his community when he began receiving multiple calls from families seeking help with the burial of their dead.
“It’s not because they’re Muslim,” he said of the COVID death rate. “Because they belong to the least privileged social classes.”
Employees could protect themselves by working from home. “But if someone is a garbage collector, cleaning lady or cashier, he cannot work from home. These people have to get out and use public transport,” he said.
“There’s a kind of bitter taste to injustice. There’s this feeling, ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why always us?’ “